Friday, June 30, 2017

Netflix streaming tip: OKJA is yet another amazing blockbuster from Bong Joon-ho

Is there anyone else in the movie world making such intelligent, suprising and entertaining blockbusters as that South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho? I don't think so. He is indeed the new Spielberg but also something quite "more." After his Snowpiercer (from 2014), he has now gifted us with OKJA, the new sci-fi/fantasy/(sort-of)monster movie that features as its leading character a stalwart adolescent girl up against a corporate world that controls us all these days. Really: I can't think of another moviemaker (Mr. Bong is shown below) who could begin a film as though it were a child-and-her-adorable-giant-animal movie and then, by its end, give us one of the most memorable, moving, surprising and disturbing scenes to ever grace the screen (and I mean any kind of screen, not simply the "theatrical" variety).

That scene, by the way, may make the movie a more difficult experience for kids -- even though they'll love and appreciate most of the film.

And yet, because Bong is such a smart and gifted filmmaker (Mother, Memories of Murder, The Host), he is able to simultaneously give us the "happy ending" that those kids (and, come on, us adults, too) so want, while forcing his audience to view the larger picture -- in a manner so stunning and wrenching that it will seem like nothing you've encountered previously.

For thie alone, Okja deserves, and will undoubtedly receive, its placement on many of the year's "best" lists. (In fact, Variety has already picked it as one of the top movies of the year at our current halfway point.)

The film's story -- no spoilers here -- is all about a girl and her pet pig. That the pig is one of many genetically modified porkers and has grown to "monster" size has been no problem, since the girl, her grandfather and their pig live way the hell out in the countryside where they see (and are seen by) nobody else.

In the supporting cast are the likes of Paul Dano (above) and Jake Gyllenhaal (below), but the movie belongs to the Korean actress Ahn Seo-hyun, as the girl, Mija, and to the special effects department that created Okja and her giant breed. She and they are wonders indeed.

The drama arrives when the corporate entity (personified by the gifted and funny Tilda Swinton) that owns the pig takes it away from the girl to become the mascot for a new line of "pork products." Will our heroine allow this to happen? Not on your strip of breakfast bacon. So our filmmaker orchestrates everything from top-notch chase scenes to a pig-in-the-china-shop spree in a Seoul mall, from a marketing parade in Manhattan to a scary scene in one of those experimental laboratories.

But Bong is simply smarter than almost all the other would-be-blockbuster moviemakers. He always sees both sides of the situation, and so continuallly surprises and unsettles us. He understands that the power of money and greed can work both ways, that corporations can make themselves rich while feeding the planet, and that animal activists who want to harm neither animals nor humans will occasionally do both. He also understands the impulse not to kill other life forms we come to care for, and this, finally, is what sets up the film's biggest conflict.

So, sure, children will find more on their plate than movies like this usually provide. But give them the chance to view and handle it, and I suspect they'll remember this film for a long, long time. Stick with it, and you will, too. Opening a only a few theaters (in New York City at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center), the film will find its biggest international audience via Netflix streaming, where it is now playing.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

THE REAGAN SHOW: a course in Presidential television from Sierra Pettengill & Pacho Velez

As one commentator points out early on in THE REAGAN SHOW -- the new documentary from filmmakers Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill about how a certain U.S. President (more probably, his handlers) mastered made-for-TV politics -- the national stage is now television, and the important question turns out to be: Is the White House going to mange that stage, or will it be the television networks? For anyone old enough to recall the fetid 1980s (Ronald Reagan held office from January 1981 through January 1989), the answer will be readily apparent.

Oddly enough, it won't matter much what your feelings are, pro or con, about Reagan because the filmmakers (Ms Pettengill is shown at right, Mr. Velez below) simply offer up a nonstop procession of this President's TV coverage while he was in that office, along with snippets of his preceding movie career, ending with his final day as President of the United States.

Reagan supporters can and will come away from the documentary thinking this was the most wonderful, and most abused, President in U.S. history, while
detractors (like me) will finish the film mumbling, "What an asshole. Good riddance!" Both sides can and probably will admit that no one before had ever made such constant and productive use of TV as the tool to convince the masses -- which is, I guess, the filmmakers' point here.

From Reagan's daily "life" (as phony as his rhetoric but shown us with utter ease and credibility) to his appearances with everyone from Michael Jackson and Mr. T. to various heads of state, we get oodles of this guy, who was dubbed by those handlers, the right-wing press and finally most of our media as "The Great Communicator." We also see just enough of Nancy to set our teeth on edge.

We view Reagan lying on screen, as he makes a campaign ad endorsing New Hampshire gubernatorial candidate John Sununu, claiming to know the guy well and believe in his abilities -- when he doesn't even understand how to pronounce Sununu's name! And yet, from his Make America Great sloganeering to his demonizing of the USSR, he will bring to mind Donald Trump, even though our current President would now have us view Russia as our new BFF.

Even President Reagan's enormous push for that ridiculous Star Wars defense initiative is handed to us without comment (except by some of the TV media), as is all else. For those of us who've followed history, The Reagan Show does make it clear that, even prior to Trump, America had elected an idiot to highest office -- though, back then, the leader was only a passively aggressive puppet, not an actively aggressive one like our current bully/bigot, coward/crook, fool/fraud "leader."

And then a new Russian big boy named Gorbachev appears, and everything seems to change. Here was someone from the other side that the media also loved. We hear Reagan state the Russian proverb that he claims to have learned in Russian -- Trust, but verify -- over and over until, as time passes, the Prez seems to slip further into the Alzheimer's with which he was later diagnosed. At this point he is kept farther and farther away from the press and is mostly seen either coming or going and doing the usual PR nonsense in front of the camera (like his appearance at Camp Ronald McDonald).

By the time we get to the Iran/Contra scandal, things have grown depressing as hell, as we realize that so much of the U.S. populace couldn't give a damn or would readily ignore the whole thing and actively close their eyes and mind to what is happening. Perhaps the most interesting segment in the doc comes as we watch Republicans back then rail angrily against Reagan for finally reaching some agreement with the USSR on arms control, even as today's Republican Party embraces Russia, Putin and Trump's sleazy regime. This combination ought to make more of us understand that the Republican Party -- one that consistently places the feet of the wealthy and atop atop the heads of the masses -- has now reached fully corrosive insanity. But it won't, of course.

From Gravitas Ventures and CNN Films, the 75-minute-long doc arrives in theaters this Friday, June 30 -- in New York City at the Metrograph and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Playhouse 7. A national rollout will immediately follow, and the film will also become available on VOD on Tuesday, July 4. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

THE SKYJACKER'S TALE: Jamie Kastner's fascinating update on a 1970s robbery/ massacre and a 1980s airplane hi-jacking

Giving you a plethora of opinions -- including that of the skyjacker himself (who now resides in Cuba) -- about an event that happened in the U.S. Virgin Islands decades ago and that resulted in lengthy prison sentences and finally the hijacking of an airplane during the following decade, THE SKYJACKER'S TALE is a crackerjack story that many of us may not recall, since that initial event happened "overseas," as it were, at one of those Caribbean Island paradises-for-the-wealthy-at-the-expense-of-the-locals.

Filmmaker Jamie Kastner, shown at right, does something that almost seems unusual in these days of take-your-side-and damn-well-stay-there politics and movie-making: He doesn't unduly push us to accept either the view of the skyjacker (Ishmael Labeet, aka Ismael Muslim Ali) or those of his antagonists, the police, politicians (one of whom is shown below) and investigators who rounded up the suspects and made damn sure they were found guilty by and via the powers-that-were back in the day.

The documentary is narrated for the most past by Mr. Labeet/Ali from his home in Cuba, the country to which he made certain that the hijacked plane was routed and where he has lived ever since 1982. (One of the number of small surprises that keep this film so interesting has to do with exactly where Labeet spent the first of his first years in Cuba, and how he felt about all this.)

Although the skyjacking itself made big news in the USA, it was the direct result of that Virgin Island robbery and murder of eight people a decade earlier that led to Labeet's actions on the plane. Once we learn some of the history of the "U.S." Virgin Islands (purchased from Denmark back in 1916), and of the robbery/massacre itself, so many questions arise about the procedures -- legal and otherwise -- used to first identify the perpetrators, obtain their confessions, and then take them to trial and sentencing that the documentary begins to seem like a kind of "prequel," Virgin Islands-style, to the later tale of The Central Park Five.

Sure, it's possible that Labeet (shown above, below and at bottom) and his pals were indeed the killers. But it is just as possible that they were not. and no effort seems to have been made, at any point, to find any other suspects. This, together with the lack of any real evidence of guilt provided by the authorities, is suspicious, to say the least. The movie also comes close to proving that the "confessions" were tortured out of the guys -- which would make them illegal in any normal U.S. court of law, which this Virgin Islands, with its lynch mob mentality, clearly was not. (The deep south, along with Black Lives Matter, will come to mind more than once during these "festivities.") The media, together with the help of the Islands' white overseers, pushed the massacre as a race issue (even though one of the eight killed was black), starting a typical wave of fear on the Islands -- oh, my god, we can't have anything draining our tourism -- so these men were caught/tried/sentenced/imprisoned in pretty much record time.

Listening to the testimony of so many of the "investigators," then and now, does not make one sense that seeking real justice was on anyone's mind. (One particular cop is clearly lying, as we learn by film's end.) On the other hand, Labeet himself does not push very hard to gain our sympathy. He, along with the filmmaker, tells his story quietly and compellingly but with no special pleading. He doesn't appear to care much whether we believe him or not. We also hear from Labeet's defense attorneys (that's Margaret Ratner Kunstler, below, the wife of another of his defense attorneys, the late William Kunstler) and these people seem quite a bit more reliable than does the prosecution.

Kastner, who earlier gave us that enjoyable doc, The Secret Disco Revolution, uses staged re-enactments of both the robbery/massacre and the airplane hijacking, and his capable handling of storytelling and actors would indicate that he might do well in the narrative mode, too. Meanwhile, we have this oddly fascinating movie to contend with. Although it is scheduled to open in our own Virgin Islands at the end of August, I can't imagine that it will be warmly embraced there -- at least not by the usual suspects. (You can read an early review from a Virgin Island newspaper here. By the way, the review gives away a spoiler that the filmmaker quite succulently saves for the very end.)

Hitting theaters via Strand Releasing and running just 76 minutes, The Skyjkacker's Tale arrives Friday, June 30, in New York City at the Village East Cinema; in New Orleans at the Zeitgeist Arts Center on July 7; and in the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center on July 14. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here, and then click on Screenings on the task bar halfway-or-more down-screen.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Keith Boynton's SEVEN LOVERS tackles "woman" -- from several angles (and genres)

An interesting idea -- tracking a woman through what looks like her relationships with different men at different times, with each shown as its own distinct movie "genre" -- is given a fairly interesting execution in the 2014 film, SEVEN LOVERS, written and directed by Keith Boynton and finally receiving a belated release digitally. The genres include everything from a seemingly standard light-rom-com to a European art film that's dialog-free; a full-out, old-fashioned black-and-white musical; a comedy of missed opportunity, and even an animated film.

This is a clever idea of Mr. Boynton (the filmmaker is shown at left), and for awhile, at least, he carries it off with some elegance and charm. His leading actors are Erin Darke (as the woman, Laura) and Fran Kranz as the man who seems, among her various lovers, to possess the most possibilities. Ms Darke, shown above and below, is better in some scenes/genres than others. She pushes a bit hard at times and lacks the more genuine, off-the-cuff bubble that actresses like Meg Ryan or Diane Keaton had at the height of their careers. Still, Ms Darke, who comes off at her most attractive in the musical mode, at least fills the bill and is sometimes even better than that.

Leading man Kranz (below), on the other hand, is (as almost always) quietly, delightfully spectacular. Possessing a handsome face and a great body, along with a nice range of acting ability, Kranz combines the goofy and the sexy to near-perfect effect. Why this young actor has not hit the big-time is a mystery to me. The usual answer, I guess: Luck coupled to the choice of roles at hand, along with the lack of a blockbuster to put him on the movie map. In any case, he could hardly be better -- more attractive and full of life, zing and chemistry -- than he is here.

A number of other good actors plays supporting roles, as the satellites that revolve around Laura -- among them, Max von Essen as a musical Mr. Right (below) and Peter Mark Kendall as a friendly Brit in the missed-connection scenario.

Gia Crovatin (below, left) plays Laura's best friend, a woman who's a little bit too over-the-top for comfort. It is in her character, and especially in that of Laura's herself, where the movie falls the most flat. It's odd that, in a film in which a female is given the major role -- and one taking in several genres, too -- that it is this character that feels the most empty. Laura is needy, ditsy and confused. And that's about all. Seven Lovers proves much heavier on situation and genre than on depth of character.

For all we see of our Laura, she never really expands, and everything we learn about her seems awfully surface, if not second-hand. When, at one point her character announces, "Well, that's me," I felt like asking, "But just what is that." This is not Darke's fault -- she does what she can with these role(s) -- but more the filmmaker's.

Boynton's juggling genres is handled effectively, with the animated sequences (as above) -- involving a princess, a knight in shining armor, and a dragon -- simple but cleverly done. Eventually, though, the overall pacing seems a good deal slower than necessary (the movie could lose ten minutes with no problem at all), given the quantity and quality of its content. Still, this idea of combining/splitting a movie into genres is unusual enough to merit a look. And eventually a more productive execution of that idea.

From Premiere Digital Services and running 108 minutes, Seven Lovers is currently available to rent or buy on the following digital platforms: Amazon, iTunes, Microsoft, VUDU Vubiquity, Dish and Google. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Streaming debut: Brian Knappenberger's doc, NOBODY SPEAK: Trials of the Free Press

Brian Knappenberger is the guy who gave us one of 2014's best documentaries, The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. He's back again this year with an equally important and worthwhile doc, NOBODY SPEAK: Trials of the Free Press, which is a warning about how and why one of the (always problematic) pillars of our (less and less) free society continues to crumble beneath us.

The approach of Mr. Knappenberger (shown below) is three-pronged: He shows us

the trial involving Hulk Hogan's sex tape and the news/scandal site, Gawker (and what lay beneath it), the sudden take-over the Nevada's foremost newspaper by billionaire Sheldon Adelson; and finally Donald Trump's ongoing war against the press, truth and facts.

The result of this trio of events points clearly to the increase in danger to a free press in this country, with the filmmaker marshaling his evidence well and presenting it in a focused, meaningful fashion. The result should leave you further aware and frightened.

How you may feel about the late Gawker, its owner Nick Denton (shown below) or Hulk Hogan (shown further below) does not matter here (I was a fan of neither), but the threat to a free society by a billionaire bankrolling a lawsuit he had absolutely nothing to do with (as we learn most definitely happened here) in order to put a news source out of business does indeed matter -- and in fact sets a bad precedent.

Knappenberger lets us meet a number of the fine journalists, as well as the editor, who worked for that Las Vegas newspaper and have now had to depart, due to its utterly compromised position in terms of journalism, and the filmmaker's round-up of Trump's various lies involving the press all add up to a depressing view of these current times and the disappearance of former standards. What's to be done? As we continue to see, in both narrative films and documentaries, no easy answers -- hell, any answers, save the violent overthrow of government, since honest elections are now a thing of the past thanks to gerrymandering, voter restriction, and probable vote tampering -- are forthcoming. Good luck to us all.

Distributed via Netflix and now streaming on that site, as well as opening today in theatrically in New York City (at the IFC Center) and the Los Angeles area at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, the documentary is worth your time, energy and discussion. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Bertrand Tavernier's MY JOURNEY THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA opens in L.A. and New York

As its title decrees, the trip that French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier takes in his new documentary, MY JOURNEY THROUGH FRENCH CINEMA, is a very personal one. Some film buffs may quibble -- perhaps even become a bit appalled -- at what has been left out here, yet so enjoyable, rich and often quite moving is Tavernier's account of his own life and the ways in which film has filled it that I can't imagine anyone who appreciates this man's work not being immediately and continuously swept away by his movie.

The 76-year-old M. Tavernier, shown at right, was a "war baby," born during the occupation of France by Nazi Germany. From an early age, film was a kind of escape and, finally, a hugely important part of his teenage and adult life. He communicates all this via his remembrances in his thoughtful, moving narration, and with film clips of (by my count) just over 100 different movies! Granted, these are mostly snippets, but if you've seen many of the films (as most buffs will have) they'll resonate strongly, and even when you haven't, thanks to his fine narration, the reasons why they and their directors are important will shine through.

Our host begins (and devotes a good deal of time) to the work of Jacques Becker, a filmmaker -- Le trou, (below), Casque d'Or (above, with Simone Signoret), Touchez pas au grisbi -- not as well known to Americans as many other French directors but (in Tavernier's and my own view) just as important. After this segment, you'll definitely want to bone up on Becker. From there we move to another great filmmaker, Jean Renoir, about whom we learn, among other things, that he was, according to the great actor Jean Gabin: "As a filmmaker, a genius; as a person, a whore." You'll understand better just why, once you've experienced Tavernier's quietly thoughtful, honest and encompassing view.

Gabin (shown at bottom,with Jeanne Moreau) gets his own wonderful section, too, as does actor Eddie Constantine (below), who provides some of the doc's funniest, wittiest moments, before which we get a very interesting section devoted to Marcel Carné, a noted director about whom Tavernier tells us, "Few filmmakers have been attacked by their colleagues as much as has Carné."

Along the way composers such as Maurice Jaubert are given their due, as are much lesser known directors like Jean Sasha (though the IMDB spells it Sacha, it's Sasha in the doc's subtitles). We see and hear a bit from early Truffaut, and learn quite a lot about the work of an interesting journeyman director, Edmond Gréville, who made both French- and English-language films.

As Tavernier's adult life takes off, we're made privy to all sorts of fun and interesting anecdotes, especially regarding his time as an assistant to filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville. an asshole extraordinaire who was also supremely talented, about whom we learn a lot here, including Tavernier's assessment (correct, I think) of Melville's lesser capabilities as screenwriter. And did you know that Tavernier first encountered Melville's movie, Bob le flambeur, at a theater that offered a burlesque show between screenings? It's this sort of diversion that adds to the documentary's fun.

From the much-appreciated Melville, we move to the less-so Claude Sautet -- this section will make you want to take another look at Sautet's work,such as Max and the Junkmen, above -- and to Tavernier's time doing PR at Rome-Paris Films.

Here we encounter everyone from Chabrol to Varda (that's Corinne Marchand in Cleo from 5 to 7, above) to, yes, Godard, And we learn (very briefly) how our host then went on to a career as a writer and director. Mostly, though, it's other people's films that matter more to Tavernier. And once you've experienced this lovely documentary, they're going to matter more to you, too.

From Cohen Media Group, in French with English subtitles and running, yes, three hours and 20 minutes (not a one of them I would want to give up), the documentary opens tomorrow, Friday, June 23, in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal) and New York City (at the Quad Cinema) and in the weeks to come in at least another half dozen cities. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

On Home Video: Daniel Espinosa's LIFE proves to be everything the latest Alien movie wasn't

This is just a quick heads-up that if you're looking for a genuinely scary, suspenseful, smart and swift sci-fi thriller featuring an extraterrestrial who makes the recent "alien" look like the rather dumb-and-ugly monster it is, take a gamble on LIFE, from Swedish filmmaker Daniel Espinosa (don't worry, the film's in English), which is definitely this up-and-down director's best work to date.

Cleverly written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the movie pays good attention to everything from plotting, pacing and surprise to creating characters you care about while filling you in on (some of) the science of what's possible (or not) regarding space travel.

The movie's not perfect but it is so much better than anything else like it in a long while (particularly the recent and execrable Alien: Covenant, which offered Michael Fassbender and very little else) that the fact that it was so lukewarmly embraced by both critics and audiences seems a pretty clear statement of how dumb and undeserving both have now become.

I won't go into plot, except to say that, yes, the movie does the very same thing as the Alien franchsie and other space-travel-cum-monster movies: maroon a crew with the monster on board and then let things "work out." Yet how Life works them out is so much better than the other examples (save for the original Alien) that you'll be alternately on the edge of your seat and actually moved and amazed by it all. (And surprised and shaken by the ending.)

With Jake Gyllenhaal (three photos up) in fine form, Rebecca Ferguson (two photos above) supporting and Ryan Reynolds (above and below) again choosing to do a role that surprises in several ways, the entire cast is first-rate. And, yes, we lose some of them along the way, but how and why they expire is done with such novelty and feeling that this makes most other films in the genre look paltry indeed.

From Columbia Pictures/Sony and running a just-about-right 104 minutes, the movie hit Netflix DVDs yesterday (and is now -- this update comes two days later -- available on Redbox). In any case, if you're an intelligent fan of this genre, don't miss it. Click here and scroll down to view options for purchase or rental.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hot man-on-man sex, loopy Christianity and Amazons-on-horseback converge on João Pedro Rodrigues' juicy THE ORNITHOLOGIST

Portuguese writer/ director João Pedro Rodrigues is not a guy who, moviemaking-wise, repeats himself -- except in the sense that every movie he makes turns out to be something of a what-the-fuck? experience.

From his early O Fantasma through Two Drifters and To Die Like a Man right up to his latest endeavor to reach our shore, THE ORNITHOLOGIST, the viewer (and just as often the main character) may imagine that he is on somewhat stable ground. Oh, honey: You're not.

The filmmaker, shown at left, does love to surprise us and so it is again here. He even (sort of) co-stars in his own film, turning it in the process into a kind of meta-moviemaking, as he portrays the older or maybe wiser or maybe just the alter ego of his protagonist, played by French actor Paul Hamy (shown below).

M. Hamy is blessed with a tall, muscular and rather amazing body, together with a slightly-Neanderthal face that's also sexy as hell. This is quite a combination, and the actor has what is, so far, his most major role. He inhabits every scene in the film and is, well, wonderfully watchable as he negotiates his journey from what begins as a rather typical, if long-distance and picturesque, bird-watching trip into something very much different and hugely bizarre.

The plot is actually a mere series of run-ins with new characters, yet each grows stranger as the movie rolls out. From a rescue by two lost and oddly religious Chinese girls, our "hero" finds himself trussed up and threatened with castration (below), suddenly involved with a very hot and naked young man (Xelo Cagiao, further below, at right) with whom he bird-watches prior to sex (it's always better in that order, don't you think?), is set upon by a group of Amazons on horseback (even further below), and finally encounters the twin of his former hook-up, even as he turns into... what? Wow. A religious figure? Or maybe the filmmaker himself.

Rodrigues' work is nothing if not mystifying. But it's also difficult to pull yourself away from, particularly if you're attracted to same-sex couplings, philosophy-cum-religion, mysticism, and stories so bizarre that they seem more like waking dreams than most movies you'll have witnessed (a second viewing of this guy's films is very nearly a requirement).

When, toward the finale, a character notes,"There are certain things you shouldn't try to understand," you will probably agree, muttering, "Yes. Like this movie." But I suspect you'll want to finish it nonetheless. Visually, it's a non-stop treat -- from the birds at the film's beginning to the gorgeous location photography (who knew Portugal had such lovely, verdant areas?), to the whoppingly watchable Hamy.

Saint Anthony of Padua figures into all this, too, but since I am not a scholar of religion, I can't offer much guidance there, except to say that the movie finally seems like some sort of journey of the soul (and body: thank goodness for M. Hamy!) that culminate in a rather sweet and surprising scene, especially given all that's occurred previously.

Seeing The Ornithologist made me revisit my earlier posts on João Pedro Rodrigues, during which I found my round-up of his earlier films plus an interview I'd done with the filmmaker back in 2010, in which he proved a most delightful explorer of his own work, of Portugal, and lots else. (You can read that interview by clicking here.)

Meanwhile, Rodrigues' latest work -- via Strand Releasing, in English and Portuguese with English subtitles, and running just under two full hours (you'll get your money's worth in mystification) -- arrives in theaters this Friday, June 23, in New York City, where it plays the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It then hits Los Angeles (at the Landmark NuArt) and Chicago (at the Music Box) the following Friday, June 30. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, click here and then click on Screenings.